NFL Draft 2011: D-II Stud H-Back Josh Baker to Set Up Shop as a Seattle Seahawk?
Former Northwest Missouri State University do-it-all tight end Josh Baker is just working, waiting; the little known Division II prospect just wants the opportunity to step onto the practice field as a member of an NFL organization.
At 6’2”, 243 pounds he doesn’t have the size to be an NFL tight end. A player capable of playing a H-back role similar to Arkansas’ D.J. Williams on the next level, Baker is a late round prospect that more than a dozen NFL teams have shown interest in during the pre-draft process.
Baker, a participant and receiver at the Missouri pro day, put up slightly better numbers than Williams in every test: 4.66 40 yard dash, 25 bench press reps, 37 inch vertical, 9”9 broad jump, 6.93 3-cone drill, 4.34 20 yard shuttle and 11.89 60 yard shuttle.
However, the two have endured divergent paths to this point. Williams is proven in major college competition; Baker still developing, but dominating lesser competition.
I got a chance to talk to Josh Baker; and a few of those closest to him about the unheralded, yet talented and extremely versatile prospect.
Baker’s successful 2010 was the final chapter in a roller coaster college career, a career that leaves Baker still yearning to satisfy the “hunger” that he’s held on the football field since his freshman year of high school, and before that as a young kid; a “hunger” that can only be satisfied by succeeding in the NFL.
What does Baker bring to Seattle? What makes him unique? Let’s take a closer look at one of the many players who head into the draft out of the spot light, but have the potential to make an impact in the NFL.
Tough Competition, Tougher Consequences
Baker enjoyed a successful high school career a Western Branch High in Virginia as a three year standout at linebacker and tight end, second team all-state on offense as a senior and first team all district at both positions.
He redshirted in 2005 at the University of Delaware, a top practice squad player as he struggled with hamstring issues. In 2006, he was the team’s third tight end behind all American Ben Patrick and Robbie Agnone, both now in the NFL.
In an interview with the National Sports Agency before the 2007 draft, Patrick tabbed Baker, along with Joe Flacco, as the two main players to watch in the UD program. Baker had a solid 2007 as UD’s second tight end; he played all 15 games, featured as a special teams specialist and formidable on-the-move blocker.
Baker felt 2008 could finally be his time to become a main offensive weapon within the program, weathering the battle with soon-to-be NFL tight ends in the process.
A misunderstanding about Josh’s role in an altercation at school sponsored, fraternity event in a Philadelphia Bar—he was not physically involved-- led to his suspension for the entire 2008 season.
Josh admitted it was an immature college mistake that could have been avoided, an unfortunate situation at an opportune time. Coach K. C. Keeler, a stickler for discipline, would later admit the suspension was harsh, but none-the-less Baker was forced to stay away the entire 2008 season.
Understanding the Opportunity
Baker made a mature decision and moved to North Dallas with his father Kevin, got a part time job at Office Max, enrolled in community college and began working in Michael Johnson’s Elite Athletes performance program.
When I asked Josh about what motivated him during the suspension (in prior correspondence, Kevin told me he thought this was the time “it all changed” for Josh), Josh began telling me about his high school career.
Baker is a linebacker at heart. However, 2002 Virginia Gatorade player of the year Vince Hall’s presence forced the high school coaching staff to use Baker at other positions; at UD, he competed with NFL caliber players at his position, a daunting task for any young college player. Baker was still hungry for what he believed was his true first chance to showcase his dynamic skill set.
During his breaks as a merchandise handler at Office Max, he would sit down on the computer and look at the current UD highlights and stats; “salty” was the word Baker used in describing his emotion throughout that time, paying for both his education and training, instead of being a major part of the UD offense.
“I was grinding at the bit to play ball and Michael Johnson really helped me make the transition as an athlete. I just wanted to get back to the program. I understood the opportunity I could gain and I would have to work hard for it. But I knew this is what I wanted to do.”
A Second Chance
Baker arrived at spring ball in 2009 as a beast. Sure, many players have been described as beastly on the football field. Sprinkle some salt on top, and Baker was dominant in spring ball.
“Coach Keeler sat me down after spring ball and highlighted what he thought was an important statistic: of the 53 times I had touched the ball on a third down situation in spring practices, no matter the distance or formation, I got the first down on all but one of those occasions.”
Anywhere from H-back, to split out on the edge or in the wildcat—a former baseball player--, Baker was set to be the centerpiece of the 2009 offense; his seven yard touchdown catch in his one quarter of action in 2009 came from split out as a receiver.
Coach K.C. Keeler believed 2009 would be a “magical” season for Josh, but sentiments turned to “everything happens for a reason,” in less than a quarter.
After working for nearly seven years to finally get his opportunity, it had slipped out of his fingers just like that, again.
Baker had caught the attention of NFL scouts, a pre-season FCS All American, primed to finish his career and jettison into the NFL as a rising, mid round prospect; ready to showcase his versatility, toughness and leadership on a national stage.
The right ACL injury was a major blow to not only Josh, but also those around him.
“It was a roller coaster ride for Josh,” Kevin explained. “I felt so sorry for him and fought to some up with positive things to say. Basically, all we focused on was the premise that things happen for a reason and this was not the path of destiny right now.”
His first opportunity dissolved due to unfortunate circumstances, the fate of his second opportunity never truly in his control. Would there be the opportunity for the third time to be the charm?
Toughness and Leadership Reign Supreme
Baker was denied a sixth year of eligibility at Delaware for 2010; the hamstring issues his freshman year, 2005, were not fully documented as the reason for Josh not seeing the field.
This could have been the end of the road. But as Josh’s agent Kevin Van Ry explained to me, “His two best attributes he brings to an NFL team: he’s always pushing higher and his maturity stands above that of his peers—and the first thing that stands out to almost all scouts is his toughness and willingness on the field.”
Josh obtained a major in criminal justice and a minor in leadership. He credits his education in leadership for his communication skills with teammates both on the field and in the locker room.
Two qualities were clear to me during our conversation: his motor to succeed knows one gear, go; he is a player that is maximized by using his versatility, as he prides himself on being a complete player. He doesn’t know quit.
He enrolled at Northwest Missouri State in 2010, the defending division II champions, with the hopes of helping the team return to the title game.
Versatile and Valuable
Baker didn’t have a defined role at first, but quickly established himself as both a tenacious, mobile blocker and a playmaker deserving touches on offense.
He caught three balls in his first game and one in game two, a 42 yard touchdown. He had three carries in game two, two touchdowns; one on a 50 yard fake punt and run (1:10 in the highlight reel, another fake punt run for touchdown at 4 minutes).
Baker talked to the coaching staff after his breakout game two, trying to help integrate himself into the offense and expand his role.
He made an instant impact as an H-back, tight end, fullback, special teams ace and wildcat specialist. He amassed 950 yards combined rushing and receiving on 77 touches, 12 touchdowns, while splitting time with the other main tight end; he was 1 for 1 passing and a consistent, often dominant blocker.
Baker played in 13 games, starting 11, unfortunately suffering a high ankle sprain in the playoffs limiting his effectiveness and keeping him out of the championship game, a four point NWMSU loss.
A less then desired ending, but a successful season one year after a major knee injury. Though playing against lesser competition, Baker was able to consistently overmatch the opponent—watch half of the video above and you will see the complete package, both with and without the football.
Not having played against elite competition in nearly four seasons, there will be an adjustment period for Baker; he will have to continue to refine his skills and body to an NFL level, minor issues with ball security and durability two question marks about Baker.
He will undoubtedly have to adjust to the speed of the NFL, but as Baker put it “I always work to be bigger, faster, stronger.” There is no doubt he has the work ethic, talent and football acumen to make the adjustment.
And as he so happily put it, “I finally got that horrible knee brace off. I can move again.”
"I Just Want an Opportunity"
As Baker explained to me in our conversation, “It’s not important to me if I get drafted. I just want to get my foot in the door, with any NFL team.”
He hopes to continue playing multiple roles on the next level, simply because he always wants to be a part of the play. “I believe when you play multiple roles it allows you to enjoy the game more.”
Furthermore, he enjoys using creativity in finding ways to move the play up field blocking or as a receiver against one on one against coverage. His motto, “when I catch the ball, I always gotta make one miss.”
Always looking to make a play with the ball in his hands, Baker obviously wants to be a playmaker on the next level. However, as a small school prospect he’ll have to prove himself worthy of being given the opportunity. He understands the value of his versatility and willingness.
Baker spent an extra two weeks training at the UD training facility this off season with the programs new, renowned strength coach Augie Maurelli; he was supposed to stay a week on the visit. “I’ll always be working for that extra five pounds of lean muscle.”
Opportunities are sometimes very short in the NFL; I asked Baker if being down by 15 with five minutes to go or up 32 with four minutes to go would draw more effort from him on the field:
“Honestly, we are either down and have a chance to do something to get back in the game, or I can be working on my blocking technique or on my route running, practicing whatever the coaches has asked me to do;” Baker cares about his craft on the football field, an attitude that may be the difference in him making an NFL roster in 2011.
The Fear of Settling
Josh’s up and down college career has given him a fear that is integrated into his hunger to prove himself; he fears settling with what he has in the moment, and counters that fear by always pushing harder.
Baker admits to having the athleticism of an H-back, but the mentality of a linebacker; Ray Lewis is his favorite player, the soon to be Hall of Famer’s passion for the simple things within the game of football is what stands out to Baker. Baker’s passion to play football the right way is what stands out to me.
Baker is one of the best kept secrets of the 2011 draft. A secret that many NFL GM’s hope remains lost among the mass of prospects; until sometime on the third day of draft weekend.
We won’t know until day three whether or not Baker is a legitimate late round prospect for Seattle, but who the team takes in round four will set the stage for the late rounds.
Seattle has two picks late in the fifth round and one early in the sixth. Baker has the versatility, receiving skills, and toughness to be the physical presence Seattle needs in the backfield; not to mention the potential to be a special teams standout.
And with the long list of teams interested in Baker and his mid 6th to 7th round grade, that stretch of picks may be Seattle’s only chance to pursue Baker.
One final nugget to consider; Pursuing Baker wouldn’t be a first for Pete Carroll. As defensive coordinator at N.C. State, he recruited Kevin Baker, Josh’s father, in 1980 to play tight end. Baker played for nearly three seasons.
Lineage has been a strong factor for Pete Carroll in building his coaching staff and organization in Seattle; Baker had a positive experience under Carroll. Is Carroll interested in the next generation?
Wherever Baker goes, you can count on that he won’t stop pushing to be better. If he can get the opportunity, he is confident “I can control the rest” and play his way onto an NFL roster.
Seattle could be the team that extends that opportunity; history is on Baker’s side.